WARSAW, POLAND – The train station and tram stops were full Monday. The banners were coming down, fans from across the world were filing out to airports and railway stations, all heading home from the Euros. They leave behind two great cohosts, and take with them memories of one of the best tournaments of this era.
Euro 2012 was not the first tournament to be held in Eastern Europe - that was in 1976 in a country that no longer exists. This year's tournament will be remembered as equal or even greater than what was considered one of the greatest Euros in 1976.
The 1976 Yugoslavian tournament, won by the former Czechoslovakia, was the greatest of that era. Johan Cruyff's Holland, Franz Beckenbauer's West Germany, Antonin Panenka's Czechs and Dragan Dzajic's Yugoslavia were considered the best teams of their age. Every one of those games was high-quality, and they are well remembered to this day.
As it happens, one of the great moments of that tournament, Antonin Panenka's insouciant penalty kick past the bewildered Sepp Maier to collect the trophy, was mirrored in this tournament. Andrea Pirlo chipped Joe Hart during the tiebreakers to send Italy towards their second-place finish and put Panenka's name back on everyone's lips. Interestingly enough, it has been forgotten that the Czechs were unaware that penalties were needed to decide the final - they left the field in 1976 thinking the game would go to a replay.
Just like in 1976, the same is true of 2012. This tournament had the best teams of the era and put on a far better show than we saw in South Africa. Spain has to be considered the best team of any era -their collection of an unprecedented treble is a feat that may never be topped. Germany is the team of the future and were perhaps unlucky not to get to the final. Italy and Portugal have some truly great players in Cristiano Ronaldo, Joao Moutinho, Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli. Even the minnows -- the cohosts this time around -- packed a punch.
Who will forget Jakub Blaszczykowski's triumphant goal against Russia for Poland? Or Andriy Shevchenko's age-defying performance against Sweden to kick-start Ukraine? Where were you when Giorgos Karagounis latched on to a mistake by Sergei Ignashevich to lead the Greeks past mighty Russia? And can anyone forget Balotelli's punch to the top corner against Germany or Zlatan Ibrahimovic's impossible volley against France?
Off the field, the Euros excelled as well. Poland were superb cohosts, welcoming fans from across the planet and showing off some truly world-class cities; Warsaw, Poznan, Gdansk and even Krakow - which didn't host a single game but did host many fans and teams - were marvelous to see and visit. Ukraine was more troubled, with empty seats at the final serving as a reminder of what price-gouging truly can do for a tournament. Regardless, Kiev and Dontesk are grand cities, and their quirks only served to enhance this tournament.
Yes, there were some ugly incidents. Polish and Russian hooligans clashed, while fans taunted the Dutch team in Krakow. Italy's Balotelli had bananas chucked at him and the Russians collected more fines than points. One of the most bitter ironies was that an ambush marketing stunt -- Nicklas Bendtner dropping his shorts to reveal the name of a bookmaker - was more harshly punished by UEFA.
But most of the pre-tournament scare-mongering was just that: hype. It's hard to remove and escape the thought that these "reports" were merely Western prejudices. Warsaw, in particular, rivals Berlin and Paris for culture and food. Plus, I defy you to find a lovelier city to look at than Krakow.
What comes next is less than clear.
Poland is already experiencing a bit of buyer's remorse. The Poles plunked down $20 billion to get the stadiums and infrastructure up to speed, and may be left with at least one white elephant of a stadium. The country needed improvements to its road and transportation systems. Nonetheless, as some of the more acidic commentators have noted, this is also a country that cannot afford to buy supplies of medicine needed for its cancer patients. Was it really wise to spend nearly $700m on a stadium in Warsaw that many predict cannot be regularly used?
Ukraine, unfortunately, comes off somewhat worse. The travel in that country was a nightmare, and while the cohosts were welcoming in the extreme, many visitors felt ripped off by the outrageous lodging prices. That said, Kiev is a world-class center of the East and most fans leave there with memories of the two-day party that wrapped around the Finals.
The tournament itself will also change. UEFA will expand the 2016 Euros to 24 teams in France, and most observers predict that the Euros will never have the same charm. Nearly half the teams in Europe will qualify and it's hard to imagine that the group stages of the next edition will pack the same punch.
Now, our attention turns to the summer series of club friendlies and the Olympic Games in London. So to Poland and Ukraine, we say goodbye and offer a heartfelt thanks. They put on a classic show that will be hard to top, let alone equal.